Forgotten Heroes of the Skirmish Line: Jerry Z. Brown
Today’s hero, presented as part of the irregular series of men on the skirmish line, is Captain Jerry Z. Brown of Company K, 148th Pennsylvania, which at this point in the war was armed with Spencer repeaters. Here is his story, taken from the regimental history:
“It was in the evening of October 27, 1864, that the Adjutant of the Regiment came to me and said, ‘We want one hundred men to charge on a fort in front of Petersburg.’ I found that it was to make a charge on earthworks within the enemy’s lines and said, ‘I will go for one.’ Three other officers of the Regiment volunteered, Lieut. P. D. Sprankle, Alexander Gibb and J. T. Benner. Capt. H. D. Price, of the brigade staff, went with us. He was killed just as he reached the top of the works. His body was recovered the next day by flag of truce. I was the first officer to volunteer, and as the senior officer I was placed in command of the forlorn hope. As the detachment was about ready to start several men of my company said, ‘Captain, if you are going we must go along,’ but I said, ‘Some one of Company K must stay at home to tell the story,’ but I enrolled fourteen of my company. We formed in line inside our works about twilight, and after receiving instructions from General Mulholland to reserve our fire until we got close to the fort, we fixed bayonets and started on the double quick and got within about two hundred yards of the fort before the enemy’s pickets opened fire on us. Advancing rapidly our first trouble was with the chevaux-de-friese in front of the fort’s trench. It was wired and roped together and after some of my men had cut an opening with axes I threw the chevaux-de-friese around, right and left, and my men charged rapidly and most gallantly through the opening. We jumped the ditch, which was full of water and scaled a rampart. I rushed up the embankment, my ‘boys’ with me, in the face of a galling fire, and jumped right into the fort. As General Burnside had mined and exploded a fort some distance to the right about three months before this the enemy had dug a hole like a well about forty feet deep just within the parapet of the fort we charged and when I jumped over I lit within four feet of the hole, at the peril of my life. There was a bomb-proof embankment just inside the fort and the rebel artillery men were hurrying up with grape and canister to charge their guns for use on the assaulting column. A rebel officer was directing the men and I at once covered him with my sword and demanded his, which was promptly handed over and also the swords of two other rebel officers, and all were passed back to my men. We learned afterwards that the fort was garrisoned by the 46th Virginia Infantry.
“We captured a large number of men but the majority of the rebels ran out at the rear of the fort and escaped. I then ordered my men to fire right and left along the line of the fort and directed Lieut. J. F. Benner to take the prisoners back to our lines. I staid within the fort half an hour and looked in vain for re-enforcements and could not then understand why they did not come.
“I could hear the enemy in the rear rattling their muskets, officers giving commands, and preparing for a charge when I ordered a retreat to our lines. We carried back with us some who had been wounded in scaling the redoubt. Just as I had entered our works again I met a brigade of re-enforcements under General Mulholland. and hot under the circumstances, I said, ‘General Mulholland, why in h-l didn’t you re-enforce me.’ It was a terrible risk for a little Captain to thus speak to a superior officer, but he mildly replied, ‘I did the best I could.’
“The next morning a division Aide rode down the lines and after finding me handed me an envelope ordering me to report at division headquarters immediately. It alarmed me greatly but I buckled on my sword and assumed my best military bearing and soon saluted General Miles, who seated me by his table and remarked, ‘That was quite a snap you got into last night.’ I answered, ‘It was interesting.’ I told him I could not understand why I was not re-enforced. General Miles then astonished me by saying, ‘To tell you the honest truth we never expected you to cross that fort or a single man of you to return alive.’ He said that it had become absolutely necessary to make a demonstration at that point, to divert Lee’s attention, and I thought one hundred men enough to sacrifice.
“He then said that the best thing that he could do was to recommend me for promotion to the War Department for meritorious conduct on the field of battle, and said that he had intended to do the same thing for me after the battle of Reams Station but had overlooked it.”
Brown got a brevet to major for his efforts, and eventually (in 1896) a well-deserved Medal of Honor. He survived the war and died on February 19, 1916, at the age of 76. Today he rests at Squirrel Hill Cemetery in New Bethlehem, PA.
His own regimental history characterized it as “the rashest, bravest, most hopeless charge made by any body of troops on either side.” One of Brown’s men, Private William Kellerman, ended up in a hole after the rest of the Federals were driven out, and was unable to get back to his own lines. Incredibly, he hid out for eight days inside the Rebel lines “although it was intensely cold and he had no provision or blanket with him, he subsisted on roots and bark within his reach and water that he could get when it rained, waiting for a dark night when he could steal through the rebel picket line.” Eventually he did make it back, “more dead than alive.” Although he got a thirty day furlough and a mention in dispatches, his frostbitten feet rendered him unfit for further duty and he was discharged.
While the raid was an embarrassment for the Confederates, they repaid the compliment several days later by capturing most of Miles’s picket line in an incident mentioned earlier.